App classification could kill local market for small developers

Xavier Verhoeven
17 August, 2010
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Plans to introduce a classification system for mobile apps and games could lead to small Australian developers bypassing the local market and going direct to offshore app stores.

A report by Michael Bodey in The Australian yesterday has highlighted the concerns the government has about the lack of classification for mobile games. While films and games on other platforms are subject to local classification, the mobile app industry has largely slipped through unnoticed.

Issues of censorship aside, there are huge problems for the app development community associated with the proposed classification scheme. To get a game classified can take up to 20 days and cost between $1070 and $2040, depending on the level of information given to the Classification Board.

Marc Edwards from local app developer Bjango sees this extra time and money as a big worry for small game developers. Given that his company’s apps see only around 4-5 percent of sales in Australia, it would consider stopping releasing apps to the local market – “It’s as simple as unchecking a box when submitting an app,” he says.

It’s highly likely that many small developers from Australia and abroad would simply not have the money behind them to apply for classification and instead opt to give up that small market share.

Such a move from local developers could see Australian smartphone users needing to get locally developed apps from overseas stores – many iTunes users already have accounts for the US store to get movies and music that are unavailable or more expensive here.

It’s also unclear how free apps would fare with a classification system, as with lower potential for income (except through advertising), developers would be hesitant to pay for classification upfront. This is particularly relevant for the Google’s Android OS, as local developers cannot yet charge for apps on that platform.

The potential for it becoming more difficult to publish apps locally is at odds with recent government-sponsored initiatives App My State and apps4nsw, which were both aimed at helping local developers to bring their apps and ideas to market.

Another important consideration is just how the Classification Board would go about the reviewing process – there are hundreds of thousands of apps in the iTunes App Store alone, and it would be nearly impossible to rate them all. As Edwards points out, the Classification Board would also need to deal with code-signing and be able to run ad-hoc versions of iPhone apps as they cannot be released prior to appearing on the App Store. Similar approaches would be needed for webOS or Android devices, meaning it could be a very difficult process.

This isn’t the first time that mobile applications have attracted the attention of the classification bodies – in October last year, Ben Grubb reported on ITNews that the Australian Classification Board had written to the government about the lack of classification for “mobile phone applications which are computer games”. As noted by Grubb at the time, “The numbers of apps available to Australians on the Apple iTunes store alone would prove overwhelming.”

It’s also unclear exactly which apps would be faced with classification: many apps access unclassified web content (and web apps can be ‘installed’ without the App Store intermediary) while others contain gaming elements but don’t strictly fall under the games banner.

Looking specifically at the iTunes App Store, Apple already has strict guidelines in place for what is and isn’t allowed in its apps, so at least in this case, further classification by the local authority would serve little purpose, other than for the Classification Board to cash in on the success of the mobile platforms.

Edwards finishes with the insight that some of these local developers are actually very beneficial to the Australian economy, bringing in money from overseas through the international app stores. Although the local market may not be huge for many developers, it does provide a smaller arena in which to first gain some popularity that often leads to international success. While state government app competitions can only benefit the wider community, through new and useful apps, the proposed classification scheme merely makes it more difficult for developers to get the recognition they deserve.

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